45-year-old Pilgrim Station slated to shutter

Hazards for M.V. will loom throughout decommission process and beyond.

An aerial photo of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass. —Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times

The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth is currently slated shut down in 2019 in accordance with the wishes of its owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp.

Long the subject of heavy criticism from Cape Cod watchdog groups and local political leaders, the station exists in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Multiple/Repetitive Downgraded Cornerstone column — the penultimate designation before the federal government enforces a mandatory shutdown in the interests of public safety. Of all the nation’s nuclear power plants, only Arkansas Nuclear One is currently rated as poorly as Pilgrim by the NRC. Nuclear One is also owned by Entergy.

Martha’s Vineyard is well outside the 10-mile evacuation zone around the station. Yet given the right weather conditions, the Island is still within range of fallout should a calamity occur, according to Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, a Maryland advocacy group founded by Dr. Helen Caldicott.

Duxbury Nuclear Advisory Committee co-chair Mary Lampert told The Times that she believes that limiting the evacuation radius to 10 miles is a major regulatory oversight on the part of the NRC. Ms. Lampert is also the director of the nonprofit Pilgrim Watch. To her mind, a radius of 25 miles is more appropriate. This expanded zone would still not encompass the Vineyard.

Emergency managers representing Dukes County and the six Island towns have scant resources to address a fallout event, but along with the Vineyard’s health agents, they are the only radiological defenders on-Island.

Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS Chief John Rose is Oak Bluffs emergency management director, and the chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Emergency Management Directors Association. In addition to radiation detectors and dosimeters, Chief Rose’s department possesses eight Class A hazmat suits. Oak Bluffs was first equipped with these after 9/11 as protection against chemical and biological agents. The chief said they could be used in a fallout emergency, but added that his department does not have radiological training. It receives approximately $2,600 a year to maintain the equipment. The grant processes for larger sums — money that could be used for education or additional equipment — were described by Chief Rose as “overwhelming” in time and complexity. In a nuclear disaster, he sees the Island relying heavily on the state hazmat team stationed in Bourne.

Tisbury’s emergency management director, Police Lieutenant Eerik Meisner, agrees. “We would be requesting help from elsewhere. We neither have the expertise nor the monetary capacity for an event of that size,” he said.

Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll also said the state’s hazmat team would play a critical role in mitigating a radiological crisis on the Vineyard. However, Mr. Carroll said, catastrophes like hurricanes or winter storms are more probable than radiation blowing over from Pilgrim. But if such an event did occur and resulted in an evacuation, he said it was illogical for up-Islanders to travel nearer to the radiation source to get to the ferry terminals and then nearer still if they were to disembark in Woods Hole. He suggested that a Dunkirk-style evacuation — a piecemeal civilian rescue flotilla — that could shuttle evacuees to New Bedford might be in order.

Firefighter John Christenson, West Tisbury’s emergency manager, told The Times that like many of his fellow managers, he has two battery-powered radiation detectors, and enough dosimeter badges for all the town’s first responders. He narrows the danger Pilgrim may pose to the Vineyard to one particular aspect of the station’s operations.

“Risk is mainly in the long-term storage of fuel,” he said. “The events in Japan kind of inform your thinking about it.”

Ms. Lampert points out that the gravest points of the Fukushima disaster occurred when a damaged fuel storage pool at one of the reactors lost its cooling capacity. The fuel assemblies immersed in it started boiling away the pool water. The tops of these assemblies came close to being exposed. Had they become exposed, they would likely have ignited and caused far more serious and wide-ranging fallout. She argues that a fuel assembly fire in Pilgrim’s spent fuel pool would be more catastrophic than even a meltdown of the reactor, and that Pilgrim’s spent-fuel pool may be ripe for such an incident. She describes the pool as being overcrowded with spent fuel assemblies. Pilgrim’s pool was designed to hold 880 used fuel assemblies. Ms. Lampert said it now holds nearly 3,000. She sees a risk that tightly packed spent fuel rods could begin to react with one another, resulting in an unintended chain reaction.

According to Mr. Kamps, cooling pools are susceptible to heavy load drops during the loading and unloading of assembles.

“You could punch a hole in the bottom of the pool and lose the coolant water very suddenly,” he said. “One of the worst-case scenarios is actually not a complete draindown, but a draindown that’s partial.” He said this was because in a complete pool drain, the heat produced by the assemblies creates a convective airflow that helps in cooling. He said convection does not occur in a partial draindown.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan told The Times that even after the plant closes, newly immersed assembly rods must cool in a station’s pool for five years before they can be transferred to dry casks.

“We currently have eight loaded dry casks on site containing spent fuel,” Entergy spokesperson Patrick O’Brien said. “Pilgrim currently utilizes the NRC-licensed Holtec Hi-Storm 100 cask system.”

Massachusetts emergency management director Kurt Schwartz told The Times that the Island’s distance from Pilgrim lessens the consequences it might face if the plant created fallout.


“The Vineyard is far enough from Pilgrim that they would not have to evacuate in an emergency basis or shelter in place in an emergency basis in order to safeguard their health and safety,” he said. “There would not be a need for Vineyarders to seek immediate protection. Now, over the long term, any significant release from Pilgrim — state and federal agencies would be very actively monitoring the flow of the radioactive particles, mapping the plume, determining where those particles are falling to the ground, and depending on the nature of the release and the wind, it is certainly conceivable that radioactive particles could carry to the Vineyard. If that were the case, there certainly might be a need for longer-term actions on the Vineyard, but that would be based on assessment of certain dosage readings, and that’s true with any release from nuclear power plants. There will be a need for longer-term protective actions. Those longer-term actions could include up to people having to relocate out of the contaminated area.”

Mr. Schwartz’s planning, nuclear, and preparedness section chief, John Giarrusso, described evacuation as an emergency action, while relocation, should it ever happen on the Vineyard, would only come to pass after careful assessment, and therefore wouldn’t be of an emergency nature.

On March 16, 2011, in the midst of the Fukushima crisis, the Washington Post reported that the United States had advised U.S. citizens within 50 miles of Fukushima Daiichi to evacuate. In a video posted six days later, U.S. Ambassador John Roos reemphasized this, stating that exiting from within a 50-mile radius, or if that were not feasible, sheltering in place, was a recommendation of the NRC. “That recommendation is based on the steps that the NRC would recommend in a similar situation in the United States,” he said.

In a statement to The Times, State Senator Julian Cyr wrote that Pilgrim is of great concern.

“Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is one of the greatest public safety threats facing Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket,” he wrote. “The plant has been forced to power down multiple times for safety violations, and the corroding facility’s leadership was found by the NRC to not have ‘held themselves accountable to high standards of performance.’”

The senator also stated that he wants an accelerated closure: “As the state senator for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, I represent — and I live in — communities that would be disproportionately affected in the event of an incident at Pilgrim. Immediate closure of the plant is necessary, as are regulations that ensure a safe and responsible decommissioning.”

Entergy spokesman Patrick O’Brien said the plant is moving toward decommissioning in a timely manner. “We will be forming a separate decommissioning organization this year,” Mr. O’Brien said. “In addition, we had confirmed previously that a company called Accelerated Decommissioning Partners was doing due diligence to potentially purchase the plant, post-shutdown, for the purposes of decommissioning.”